So people keep asking me what the hardest adjustment here has been. Oddly enough, it has not been the power outages, the food (very much American) or the lack of hot water (don’t even notice it). It hasn’t even been the humidity or the language barrier or the heat. In fact, it has been the attention I get and the traffic/driving techniques.
In the area of The Gambia in which I am staying, the cars on the road are split about 50-50, taxis and regular vehicles. In the term “taxis” I include vans (usually quite full, serving a very similar purpose to buses), taxis that provide “town trips” (these serve the same purpose as at home) or regular taxis, which, for a fee of D7 (25 cents) you share a taxi with up to three other people and the taxis go on fixed routes, dropping off and picking up in various places. These have been hard for me to maneuver but I often take them from “Traffic Light” back to about three blocks from my hostel. Taxis often try to charge me more than the normal rate- apparently I look like a tourist, imagine that! – so I have strategically asked my coworkers to help me remember how much each town trip around here should be, and often try to take the shared taxis. “Traffic Light” is one of the central locations of my area, known as a destination because it is, you guessed it!, the only traffic light around for miles. You could call it a monument. Next to Traffic Light is a giant billboard of the president reading “A Vote For Him in 2011 Is A Sacred Duty for All Gambians,” and across the street is a bakery selling bread for D5 (17 cents)per loaf, always fresh and always warm.
Around here there are no stop lights, lanes, stop signs, yield signs, or traffic guards, and absolutely no cross walks. I do not know how, but people and cars always seem to know where to go. Mix in the goats, rams, stray dogs and constantly flooded roads and it seems to me to be a miracle that there are not accidents every few minutes. A much more difficult adjustment as a pedestrian, however, is the honking. Taxis and cars here honk constantly. When you are walking along the side of the road, they want to know if you want a ride and will repeatedly honk at you until you wave them off, which ends up being quite the arm exercise if you’re on a long walk down the main street. Cars will honk and pass each other, honk at bicycles to get them out of the way, honk at each other if they are going under the unlisted, too fast assumed speed-limit, and sometimes seem to honk just to remind everyone that they are on the crowded street too. I haven’t quite figured it out. I often get a lot of amusement from the stickers that many drivers have pasted to their back windows- some of the highlights include “Get Rich or Die Trying,” “Rasta or Bust,” “The Rasta Never Dies,” or one that I road in that had pictures of Celine Dion, TuPac and Bob Marley decorating the interior.
Because I stand out here (I know, shocker again), and, aside from often visiting a beach very popular with Peace Corps volunteers and Ex-Pats, we try to stray away from the more touristic areas, I get a lot of attention. It is very common here to be greeted with “how are you?” or “what is your name?” on the street, instead of a nod or a “hello,” and this comes from a multitude of people, men, women or children. Young children will often yell after me “toubab,” a name here used to identify a white person. Most commonly however, men on the street often try to strike up a conversation and it usually includes one or more of the following: “do you want to be my friend?” “do you have Africell?” “I love you,” “will you marry me?” “where is your boyfriend?” or my personal favorite “Take me back to America with you!” I never feel unsafe or truly threatened, although I have to say that watching my friend get offered a large sum of cash in exchange for me as a bride was quite a culture shock. The man had just finished telling us about his Native American fiancé in Seattle and his 11-year-old daughter, so it was especially hard to pass up.
On Saturday, I went to the local crocodile pools, a sacred area, however home to many school trips and tourists. The pools are said to be able to cure the woes of an infertile woman, and the crocodiles are not dangerous, so you can walk over and touch them. Following that visit, we went to Serrekunda market, a local market where women and men come to buy produce, fish, meat, fabric and live animals. Lots of fish and lots of flies. No visitors in sight, I was clearly the only “toubab” for quite a distance. I have never seen so many colors in one place. Or experienced so many smells in such a short time. It’s quite difficult to explain without a few photos-I unfortunately had to take my pictures pretty inconspicuously to avoid people asking for donations or telling me they didn’t want their photos taken, so some are at weird angles or the subject is a bit cut off, but I will try to post them anyways. Saturday evening, we went to a free concert held in the Gambian soccer stadium hosted by the local cell phone provider, Africell, and co-sponsored by the American Embassy. The Artists, typically, and even more accentuated by the customs of The Gambia, were 4 hours late, but we had left before the time they came on. Before we left, we watched children dance to the DJ’s and women balancing goods on their heads (groundnuts, mangoes, and bags of water), selling them to the concert-goers. There were no metal detectors, no rules, no tickets, and no problems. I can only imagine what a free pop music concert t in the US would have entailed. Gambian pop is pretty catchy, and even after only a few weeks here, there are a few songs on the radio I already recognize and know some of the words to. One of my personal favorites includes the line “I can’t believe you’re still a virgin.” Not sure if that’s a compliment or not but it’s a pretty peppy song.
Love and hugs,
A few estimates:
Number of mangos I have eaten since I have gotten here: 3 times a day for 19 days = 57 mangos
Number of marriage proposals I have received: Approximately 15
Number of times I have been chased by a costumed man who is traditionally allowed to beat you if he catches you: 1
Number of crocodiles I have touched: 3
Number of snakes I have seen: 0 (LET’S KEEP THIS ONE GOING STRONG!)
Number of mosquito bites I have right now: 47 (this is not an estimate, I counted)